Andrew Lowong holds up his ink stained finger to show he voted in the recent referendum on whether Southern Sudan should become independent from the North. He holds his palm outward, which has become the symbol of secession / Robin Hammond - Panos Pictures
In Southern Sudan, preliminary referendum results point to 99 per cent of those polled voting to split from the North. Paul Jimbo has spoken to voters in the Warrap and West Bahr al Ghazal states about their hopes for the future.
Southern Sudan is set to become an independent state in July following an historic vote. The latest figures released on Sunday by Southern Sudan’s Referendum Bureau show that 3,851, 994 Southern Sudanese voted in the January 9 referendum on separation.
It was the culmination of a six-year peace agreement signed in 2005 ending two decades of war between the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army and the Sudanese government; a conflict that led to the death of more than two million people.
Voters had been given a choice between two symbols on their ballot papers: an open palm for secession; a handshake for unity. Overwhelmingly they chose separation
With only 27 per cent able to read or write in this sparsely populated country, many people overcame illiteracy, poor transport and long distances to take part in the historic vote.
Ariac Kuot Akuei, 64, waited in line for nine hours to cast her vote for separation after walking four kilometres to her polling station at Kuajoc Secondary School, in Warrap state. Roads barely exist in rural areas, and she had no choice but to go on foot. When preliminary results from her polling station came in, Akuei donated one of her goats to a feast with her family and her neighbours.
“My children must know I was part of history,” she said. “This will ensure the people of Southern Sudan become a free and liberated people, we will no longer be treated like third class citizens in our own country”.
Akur Ayom Jok, 24, a mother-of-two, who sells groundnuts at the Wau open air market in Western Bhar El Ghazal travelled three hours to vote.
“I couldn’t miss out, there was no water, yet I was so thirsty but the joy of casting my vote for separation overrode all this, it was my only source of consolation,” she said, “This is the first time, and last chance, to vote for separation.”
The people here at the polling station have high hopes for their new state, which will come into being on July 9.
“I voted so that we could own our own wealth and everything in Southern Sudan,” said Awan Akuein, a security officer, from Jonglei state. “Some of us will be digging our gardens with no worry of exploitation. I voted for separation just to get rid of slavery, oppression,” he added. “I deserve to be Southern Sudanese.”
For others, the priority is development in this vast, sparsely populated land. Akur Ayom, 29, a domestic health care worker in Wau town said, “We advised them to accept the situation of being poor now but not forever. We will want to see some key development to be put as first priority like schools and health centre.”
Since the referendum campaign began in November 2010, some half a million Southerners living in the north have returned. The government of Southern Sudan aided their return by providing trucks and barges to help transport them.
The move was coordinated by the local state government’s office in collaboration with the south’s ruling party, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement’s (SPLM) liason offices in northern Sudan.
Few could afford the cost of a flight between Khartoum and Juba, so the majority relied on the Southern Sudanese government’s sponsored transport arrangement. Government-sponsored returnees are ferried in barges on three-day trips down the River Nile and held for registration before the United Nations High Commission for Refugees transports them to their villages.
In a refugee camp in Wau town, where temperatures can reach 47 degrees Celsius, several women carrying young children have lined up to register with the UNHCR. Some have lived in the north their whole lives, and don’t have home villages to return to. They will be handed over to the state government.
Returnee Aguet Ajang, 45, did not manage to vote in the referendum because she had registered in the north’s South Kordofan state. “I am happy that even if I did not vote, I am back home and I can hear the good news on separation on my radio,” she said, nursing her three-month-old son.
“Here the pit latrines have polythene papers as doors which at times are blown off while you are inside, this place has no limits for privacy but we have learned to live with this as long as we are not in Khartoum where we are never respected”, she added.
Veronique De Keyser, Chief Observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission in Sudan described the referendum as a “credible process”. “We are happy and relieved, people predicted great turmoil but thankfully that has not materialised,” said De Keyser who headed a team of 104 observers and analysts from the 27 EU member states as well as Norway, Switzerland and Canada.
Yet a vote for secession does not mean the end of the challenges for this region. De Keyser warned that a strategy is urgently needed to diffuse the ongoing tension in the oil-rich border area of Abyei, where dozens were killed in clashes during the voting period. “The situation is explosive. If a solution is not found, all the other political issues could be blocked”, she said, adding that excluding the northern government in Khartoum from decisions about Abyei, could have grave consequences.
Only 80 percent of the north-south border has been demarcated. An agreement on how to share Sudan’s oil wealth is yet to be resolved and there are questions over the future status of northerners living in the south and southerners living in the north.
The highest number of votes for unity across the region came from Raga South polling station in Western Bhar El Ghazal border state which neighbors Darfur. Here some 1396 voters voted for unity against 1947 who voted for separation.
Rizik Zachariah Hassan, is the Governor of Western Bahr El Ghazal state. He is urging both northerners and southerners to live in harmony, “We in Western Bahr El-Ghazal state would also like to thank them for the courageous decision [those who voted for unity] made because they expressed themselves and I think they committed no crime, they are not our enemies, they are good friends” he said.
A separate referendum in the border region Abyei was cancelled after officials failed to agree on the conditions for the referendum. Final results, including the results of voting in the North will be officially announced later in February.
This article was produced by Panos London but was originally published by gazeta.pl.